How Jack Harlow Became a "Somebody" Onstage

Jack Harlow’s Philadelphia concert was a restorative moment, with Harlow taking the helm.
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Jack Harlow, 2018

Jack Harlow performing at JMBLYA Music Festival in Dallas, Texas, in May 2018.

“We who tell stories know that we tell lies for living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can.” —Neil Gaiman,” 2009 Newbery Medal acceptance speech.

To be a successful artist, you must believe in shared love. As creatives, we must build our stories together. That is, the success I want for myself, I want to share with the people around me. Everybody wins, everybody eats. This, of course, extends to the musicians whom music writers critique and profile. This is why music writers fascinate over artists’ stories and their work down to the finest detail. After all, we critique because we care, and the fact of the matter is, I care about Jack Harlow. I care about Harlow, his story, and his impressive come-up.

Hence, when Jack sauntered onto the Voltage Lounge stage to perform his first-ever Philadelphia show to a pack of people moshing to his presence alone, I was thrilled for him. New Balance hoodie on and curls in his face, and even with me standing on the balcony, his energy radiated out to all four walls of the brick haunt. Harlow is not smug, but rather in awe, using his talking segments to express gratitude and work the crowd with a soon-to-be deft hand. I care about Jack Harlow, but only because his music, his rising personage, and his stage presence made me care. Such is the symbiosis of artist and consumer.

Onstage, Jack Harlow staves off appearing boastful, but he’s certainly having an “I made it” moment as he references being in a new city for the first time over shouts from the crowd to play his biggest songs. The people already love him, and why shouldn’t they? Logic dictates if you grind and your grind produces good music, the people will come. 

On Monday evening, the people gathered in Philly and knew every word to Jack Harlow “oldies”—2017 deep cuts, but this is the streaming era—and every last word down to the features from his 2018 Atlantic debut, Loose. The project dropped in August and four months later, not a beat was missed by a passionate crowd. With the speed at which music moves, to call this a rarity would be an understatement.

But how exactly did we get here? In terms of career development, Jack Harlow has taken a far more traditional path. He is not the child of hot singles and big checks. No, Harlow is a Louisville, Kentucky rapper DJBooth profiled at the top of the year following the release of his 2017 project Gazebo. Prior to that, Harlow released 18 and the Handsome Harlow EP in 2016. Between songs, someone rushed by me to get to the bar and on his way past told me he’d been “rocking with homeboy since 2014.” Let’s call that man evidence of familiarity and longevity in motion. Since 2014, Harlow has been on to something.

2017 was the year everything began to coalesce. In the vein of 18, but with matured themes, Gazebo was a portrait of a young man searching for his musical bearings while coming of age in a city that struggles to have full artistic direction. Packed with features and production credits from Kentucky’s finest—Shloob, Taylor, 2forwOyNE—Gazebo will go down a staple moment in Louisville establishing their sound as more than an outgrowth of Southern aesthetics.

For his part, Harlow blended his Drake, A Tribe Called Quest, and OutKast influences to tell the story of a debaucherous youth with a light hand. He may be young, but his music already feels lived in, mostly because we’ve all already been there. Gazebo, then, nearly suffered from being retread territory. Yet, there was something in Harlow’s demeanor on wax, his detached swagger that also informs his stage presence, that kept the project from devolving into something trite. Moody, focused, and lackadaisical, it became easy to root for Harlow. There is also one more small, raucous, and trappy tidbit: the viral “Dark Knight” video, which will go down as the single to break the young artist.

Though young, and though “Dark Knight” went off, like all artists in it for the long haul, Jack did not blow up in a day as would be so easy to assume. Listening to Gazebo, we encounter moment after moment where Harlow is evidently scared of fame and the fallout of achievement: “But I been wondering if I'm really happy / I ain't sad, I'm just wondering if I'm really happy / I been wondering if this shit that I been chasin’ / Gon’ be gratifying for me when it really happens.” Expedient success terrifies him, and for good reason: blowing up too quickly stunts artistic growth more often than not. Looking back on our January interview, then, it is obvious that Jack Harlow privileges growth above all else.

“We have no patience because of how quickly we can get everything right now. I think it’s hard for people in my generation to make shitty stuff […] You can’t always hit the mark, and that’s what I was talking about with having no patience. You’re not always going to make fire, you have to go through making that weaker stuff before you’re gonna get the fire.” —Jack Harlow, “Meet Jack Harlow, a Louisville Rapper Who is Much More Than ‘Just a Person Rapping’

On stage, handsome Harlow hits his mark. An alchemist dealing in ghost riding the invisible whip and bounding up and down the stage, Jack Harlow summons his fire and lights up the room. He rarely raps over his own vocals; he moves the crowd as a scrappy prophet might move a body of water. Even on the balcony, fully grown concertgoers dance and sing every word, unraveling in the same way Loose unraveled the methodical Jack Harlow. Having freestyled a majority of the project, that pressure-free energy follows him to the stage where he is lithe and twists and moves with the production. Enthused, we see the dawn of a new Jack Harlow in just 10 short months.

“It sounds weird, but sometimes I wish music was objective,” he told me in January. “I can knock out so many tasks for things that are objective—I’m an efficient person. Music is all about feelings and being subjective. So one thing I’ve had to do as a person is grow from being analytical and just move off of what feels right.”

In front of a packed Philly crowd, Jack Harlow moved alright. He moved and writhed, possessed by his passion, and the people reacted with equal bouts of movement and zeal. Perhaps no moment was more indicative of Harlow’s rising star power than when he transitioned into an a cappella rendition of “SLIDE FOR ME,” without warning, and the fans from the front to the back of the crowd sang every word, unprompted. This was the moment Harlow must have realized his fans are true ride-or-dies, and also the moment everyone in the crowd realized they had formed a spiritual bond with the pedantic and rowdy Louisville wordsman.

In August, I spoke with Jack once more for a TIDAL feature to celebrate hip-hop’s 45th birthday. During our conversation, I asked him which of his songs he would hope becomes a classic, to which he replied: “I hope all my songs become classics, but I don’t feel like I put anything out that yet that… Well, I got one song. It’s called ‘Eastern Parkway.’ It’s the intro to my last ‘tape, and that’s my favorite song that I’ve ever written. I hope kids from my city hear that in 40 years and it resonates with them.”

Here’s the thing: Harlow does not need to wait 40 years nor be in Louisville for the song to hit. Wall to wall in Philly, from the first subdued note of “Eastern Parkway,” the crowd leaned into the introspective cut as if they were all reciting lines from their personal journals. From the balcony, you could see Harlow performing through what was undoubtedly a career high. Classics aside, there is something to be said about a crowd of strangers becoming family and communing over the track that means the most to you. So often, we husband ourselves from ourselves and from each other, and at the onset of “Eastern Parkway,” everyone in Voltage Lounge let it all spill out. The track was a restorative moment, with Harlow at the helm.

Of course, with upcoming artists, there’s always the ultimate question of, Will they be somebody? When a gang of people pointed in Jack Harlow’s face and, a cappella, belted out “My brothers with me down to ride / Thank god I asked, I know they'd die for me,” we can bet Jack Harlow had already been somebody for quite some time. 

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